The scoop

Jon Schnur, "ideolocrat" poster boy, will not work for Obama

[This post has been updated to include a comment from Jon Schnur.]

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  Jon Schnur, the education policy expert who has been working as an advisor to President Barack Obama and played a pivotal role in writing the federal stimulus plan for schools, will not serve in the Obama administration. He will instead return to running the nonprofit principal-training program New Leaders for New Schools group that he co-founded, according to an e-mail he sent recently to members of New Leaders.

Schnur is one of the most high-profile members of the next-generation “reform” camp of Democrats, who push for dramatic changes in public schools, including strong accountability measures. He had been named as a likely chief of staff to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and was serving as a senior adviser to Duncan, helping him craft the education part of the stimulus bill.

Schnur’s close role in the administration had been seen as a signal of its direction on education, suggesting that the president was siding with the camp of education advocates that includes Schnur (and for which we singled Schnur out as a spokesman), rather than with the camp that is more skeptical of recent accountability efforts.

As word of Schnur’s plans spread around Washington, D.C., the major question I’m hearing people ask is why he is not entering the administration — and what that says about the administration’s direction. (I am in D.C. for the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association, where I am becoming a board member.)

Duncan addressed the divide obliquely last night in a speech to EWA members, saying that he wants to work with reporters to break through divides and talk about “facts.”

In the e-mail he sent to New Leaders members, which I obtained through a source and which is included in full at the end of this post, Schnur said that he is “excited” to return to the organization. He said he believes the most important work for education advocates right now is to prove that children in poverty can exceed:

…there is nothing more important in  American education right now than to demonstrate how the breakthrough results that have happened in individual classrooms and schools can happen at unprecedented scale (in hundreds of schools and indeed across entire school systems) for children in poverty.  I believe more strongly than ever that we as a community of leaders can and will demonstrate this kind of dramatic student achievement in schools across our country.

I’ve reached out to Schnur for comment. Schnur sent me this comment in which he explains his decision not to seek a position in the federal Department of Education:

President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan are extroardinary champions and leaders who are helping our nation invest in our future and dramatically improve education. I have been so honored to advise and support them over the past several months during my leave of absence from New Leaders. This experience has confirmed for me what drove me to create and lead New Leaders in the first place. First, that breakthrough success in education is urgently needed and possible. Second, there is nothing more important in education than demonstrating and codifying how the breakthrough results that have happened in individual classrooms and schools can happen at unprecedented scale for our students in greatest need. I have decided to return to New Leaders for the same reason I chose to leave the Clinton-Gore White House to found New Leaders a decade ago: to help a community of results-oriented principals and leaders drive dramatic improvements in our schools for hundreds of thousands of students nationwide, demonstrate that success is possible at scale in American public education, and leverage the knowledge we create to change education nationwide.

I am so confident in this Administration and its outstanding education team’s commitment, readiness, and ability to lead dramatic improvements in education. And I look forward to contributing to — and one day celebrating — the results that all of us in education will help achieve for our children and society.

Here’s Schnur’s full e-mail to members of New Leaders:

To the New Leaders Community –
 
I hope that you, your teams, and your students are having a good, productive school year, and that you and your families are doing well.
 
As you know, I have been on a leave of absence from New Leaders since September in order to advise the Obama for America presidential campaign, serve on the Presidential Transition Team, and serve as a senior policy advisor to Secretary Arne Duncan.  I am so excited to see the growing potential – in our nation and in the New Leaders community – to achieve our mission of high achievement for every child.
 
I am writing you today to provide an update on my plans.  As I shared with the New Leaders staff earlier this month, I am excited to share with you the news that I have decided to return to New Leaders.   I will begin to re-engage as an active board member in May (including participating in our spring Foundations in New Orleans with our 130+ member Cohort 8), take some long-overdue vacation time with Elisa and our kids, and return full-time into my role as CEO later by the end of June.
 
It is an honor to help a new President and Administration leverage what has been learned in schools and classrooms to drive dramatic achievement gains for all students.   The past seven months have confirmed for me two core convictions that have driven our community for the past nine years.
 
First, that quality education for all children is achievable, essential, and urgently needed to create a better future for our nation and world.
 
Second, there is nothing more important in  American education right now than to demonstrate how the breakthrough results that have happened in individual classrooms and schools can happen at unprecedented scale (in hundreds of schools and indeed across entire school systems) for children in poverty.  I believe more strongly than ever that we as a community of leaders can and will demonstrate this kind of dramatic student achievement in schools across our country.
 
In order to act on those convictions, I am excited to return to New Leaders to help drive these changes deeply in our schools and school systems as we support each other and rigorously analyze and share the practices that are and aren’t driving big improvements in student success.  I am also excited to leverage our shared learnings from the New Leaders community to drive even broader impact in our communities, states, and nationally.
 
I am so grateful for what you do every day – for your commitment to children, for your leadership, and for the results you are making possible for our students.   And I am so grateful for the outstanding leadership and management that my partner LaVerne Srinivasan, our New Leaders management team, and our entire organization have provided over these past months and will continue to provide as we move into this vital next phase of our work together.
 
Meanwhile on the personal front, it is with great joy that I share that Elisa and I are expecting our third child this fall.  Elisa, Matthew, Elizabeth and I are very excited – and welcome the good counsel and advice from those of you who have parented three small children.
 
I look forward to reconnecting with the New Leaders community in the weeks ahead, learning deeply from you and your experiences, and celebrating the results of your hard work as they pay off in significant ways for our students.
 
With respect and admiration for all that you do each day – now and in the marathon that we are in together on behalf of every child,
 
Jon

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.